Okay, let me do a weird thing and tell you what hip hop looks like from a rabbi’s perspective.
Why in the world would you care what a rabbi thinks about hip hop? Well, I’ll admit that even though I grew up on hip hop and I love it, it’s usually not my area of expertise. I spend my professional time thinking about God and religion and all that kind of woo-woo stuff.
But one of the big things Judaism has to say about God is this: whatever “It” is, it ain’t YOU, buddy! Since the days of the Pharaoh in Egypt, we’ve been raising our staffs and shouting “Danger!” when people start thinking they are gods.
So, with that in mind, I’m looking at my old friend hip hop lately, and it seems to this rabbi that hip hop is suffering from a serious God Complex. In fact, this condition has been building for quite a while, but it has reached full blown mania with Kanye West‘s recent album drop, Yeezus. Third track on the album? “I Am a God”. Ol’ Pharaoh couldn’t have said it better himself.
Let’s back up and see how we got here. Now, everyone knows that the M.C. in hip hop has always been a shameless self-promoter. One of the central themes in rap music has been Bragging & Boasting, and most rhymers are telling you, in one way or another: “I’m so awesome.” It can get a little tiresome and sound a lot like egotism to the untrained ear. But there are actually good reasons for this culture of bravado.
1. First of all, it’s a natural byproduct of the dazzling games of wordplay and rhymecraft that rapping is all about. The message reflects the artistry, both of which are saying: look what I can do!
2. More importantly, though, the platform of the MC can be one which allows for self-empowerment. Hip hop emerges from a culture that has been denied power by society, and the rapper can reclaim that lost social voice through the medium of hip hop. There’s something incredibly inspiring about that.
3. Finally, it’s just fun. Hip hop is a performance art, after all, and so there’s an element of theater to all of this big talk. What would come of as arrogance in a real person, we sometimes like to see in boxers, or dancers, or showmen of any kind. Think of the dance in the end zone. And so it is with MC’s. We like to watch them hype themselves. We smile and cheer at their unreal confidence. It’s called SWAGGGGGGER. And it is awesome.
But a certain point, an MC can get so awesome in his own mind, that his swagger crosses over into something beyond good times and healthy self-empowerment. I remember the first time I saw something like this in hip hop that kind of creeped me out. I was walking through New York and looked up to see a billboard promoting Nas’ new album, Street’s Disciple. Now, of course, Nas had already put out an album called God’s Son (a phrase he has tattooed on his stomach), which already suggested that he was heading into weird messiah territory. But who knows, I thought, maybe he’s just saying he’s a child of God, like we all are, blah blah blah.
But no, the billboard picture confirmed the messianic undertones: it was Nas seated at a table, imitating the Last Supper, with his disciples all around him. Except that it wasn’t enough to just be Jesus. Everyone else in the picture is also Nas! It was almost like Nas was conflicted between the part of his ego that saw himself as Jesus, and the part of his ego that didn’t want anyone else’s face on his album cover.
So you’re gonna say, “Chill out, rabbi! It’s just album artwork! He’s playing with a theme! No big deal. Artists have been using Jesus imagery for thousands of years.” Okay, fine. Maybe so. I can’t say how seriously Nas was taking this stuff. But I can say that ever since then, I’ve noticed that whenever a rapper gets to the point when it’s not just him saying he’s the greatest rapper alive, but other people, as well… a fire is fueled, and all of a sudden the “I’m so awesome” language drifts more and more into “I am a God” language.
Take the other major candidate for Greatest Rapper: Jay-Z. What does he call himself? It’s the title of his “anthem”:”H to the Izzo…. V to the Izzay….”
Which stands for… H.O.V.A! As in J-Hova… As in the name for God in the Hebrew Bible!!!
Now, Jay-Z is pretty phenomenal, I won’t take that from him. He has certainly earned the right to boast. But maybe claiming to be God Almighty is pushing it just a little far? Maybe? Well, don’t expect him to back down any time soon. The name of his next album, due in July? Wait for it… Magna Carta Holy Grail. Yup, Jay-Z, it seems, is not just God the father, but the son, as well. Maybe we can predict the following album title already… Holy Ghost, anyone? I mean, it just wouldn’t be right to leave Jay-Z out of any part of Godliness, would it?
But speaking of holy trinities, there’s now third contender for the title of the God of hip hop, and this one outdoes Nas or Jay-Z in the self-worship contest. In fact, for a long time, hip hop fans would argue over who’s the greatest rapper, Nas or Jay-Z? Well, Kanye West seems to have an answer to that question: “Neither! I’m the greatest!”
Now we all know that Kanye came up as a producer for Jay-Z (he produced ‘H.O.V.A’, actually!), and that the two have been good friends for years. They even released an album together, 2011’s Watch the Throne. But lately, it seems like, Kanye has been watching that throne more and more hungrily and decided he’s the only one who should be sitting in it.
In his recent NY Times interview, Kanye calls himself the Michael Jordan of music, the Steve Jobs of “internet, downtown, fashion, culture” (whatever that means), and ends with the epic line: “I am the nucleus.” Is it any wonder that his album title suggests that he’s also the Jesus of hip-hop?
It’s a really great read, this interview – you should take a look if you haven’t seen it. And people have been passing around it and marveling at how crazy Kanye sounds. So a recent Buzzfeed article came to Kanye’s defense and essentially said: yeah, Kanye thinks he’s the greatest, but he is, so shut up. It’s tacky and unfair, the article says, to attack arrogance when a certain amount of that inflated ego is actually necessary to drive the production of great art.
But here’s the thing. No one begrudges Kanye for thinking he’s a great producer. No one denies that he’s a trendsetter and a fashion icon. The reason Kanye sounds insane is that he doesn’t just sound like an egomaniac. He sounds like he thinks he is a divine being. And that’s not called SWAG; that’s called CRAY.
The God Complex has been hovering above hip hop for a while now, but no one has suffered from the delusion as bad as Kanye does. So maybe Yeezus represents a breaking point for hip hop. Maybe the time has come for rappers to talk about something other than how great they are. Because whatever purpose it has served in the past, after more than two decades, that theme has gotten kind of old. ‘‘I Am a God’ just pushes the message to the limit, to the point where it sounds silly. But the truth is, even the old standard hip hop message of “I’m so awesome” has gotten boring at this point. At a certain point, hip hop is going to become played out if it can’t figure out anything new to say. Ironically, if someone could bring a new voice into rap and not get carried away into some messianic mania, maybe that’s the person that could actually be hip hop’s savior.
Or, at least, that’s how it looks to this rabbi. But hey, I come from a tradition that has been on the lookout for false messiahs for thousands of years. So you’ll pardon me, hip hop, if I’m a little sensitive. I’m just worried about you.
Alright, that’s it for now. Next week: rabbi tackles country music!